TOPEKA — A lawsuit filed Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice alleges the Wichita Police Department use of a gang list has disproportionately harmed communities of color.
According to the lawsuit, criteria to be added to the list are “vague and broad and encompass a wide range of innocuous, innocent and constitutionally protected behavior.” Actions that could land you on the list — as outlined in Kansas Statute — include wearing a criminal street gang’s color, associating with criminal street gang members or frequenting a particular criminal street gang’s area.
Committing or even being charged with a crime is not a prerequisite to be placed on this list, said Teresa Woody, litigation director for Kansas Appleseed. However, the legal and personal consequences — which include intensive surveillance, traffic stops, and increased bail — are often felt lifelong, she said.
“They are targeting communities of people, most of whom have nothing to do with gang violence, street gangs, and many of them and most of whom have never even been suspected of a crime,” Woody said. “They’re up on the list with all these really horrible repercussions for their lives.”
The ACLU and Kansas Appleseed, along with several individual and group plaintiffs, assert the gang list is unconstitutional and violates community members’ First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The class-action suit challenges the “unchecked and far-reaching” Kansas law and Wichita police policy, and calls on Wichita to cease any current or future use of the list.
According to Kansas Appleseed, Wichita is the only municipal police department in the state currently using such a database. WPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The complaint says the police department’s gang list is discriminatory toward Black and Latino residents. Black residents account for 60% of the list but only 10.9% of Wichita’s population. Latino residents make up 25% of those on the list and 17.2% of the city’s population.
Only 6% of those on the gang list are white, despite making up 62.8% of the population.
Once identified by police as gang members, people are placed on the list without notice or opportunity to challenge, the lawsuit says. The gang list and locations designated as gang territory are not available to the public, per Kansas statute.
The only circumstance in which Wichita police policy calls for some form of notice is when a juvenile qualifies as a gang member or associate under criteria in Kansas law. Woody said children as young as 12 years old, possibly younger, have been designated gang members by Wichita police.
Individuals will remain designated as active or associate for a minimum of three years. If after three years there is no documented activity, the individual’s status will change to inactive. However, the name will remain on the list, and if the individual meets any of the initial criteria, the three-year period will start over.
“We’ve heard there are entire businesses and entire parts of neighborhoods where people can’t go, because if they do, they will be flagged either for inclusion on the database, or they will be reassessed as active on the database,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. “So it has these sorts of deep implications for people’s First Amendment rights to associate with people and to express oneself.”
When on the list, one may face a variety of future legal difficulties or personal hurdles, plaintiffs said. Kansas law mandates judges set cash bail for those on the gang list at a minimum of $50,000. Exceptions may be given if the court determines the defendant is not likely to re-offend, but in those cases, they must submit to intensive pretrial supervision.
Brett said people designated as gang members face frequent harassment from police officers, including stops on minor traffic violations like failing to signal within 100 feet. In light of the recent shooting of Daunte Wright in Minnesota, pretextual stops like these are increasingly problematic, Brett said.
“The way that this gang list is used to target people and the way that WPD officers might go into those encounters with Black and brown motorists who are on the gang list, conceiving of them already in their mind as getting members,” Brett said, “the implications of that are terrifying, frankly, for that community.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit said the impact of being placed on that list is often felt in a variety of ways, both on a day-to-day basis and over their lifetime.
Even for those who never come into contact with law enforcement, the placement on the list could affect career outcomes. The gang affiliation may come up on a background check because the police department contracts with entities like the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Woody said.
One of the named plaintiffs, a 26-year-old Black man, was placed on the list in 2015 when he was 18. He said the designation came up in background check, and he was denied employment for it.
A common thread among all named plaintiffs is that they allege consistent and frequent surveillance, harassment and targeting by police for minor traffic infractions.
“I have gotten pulled over so many times with police using the gang list as an excuse to search my car — never receiving a ticket but constantly harassed,” said Dante Bristow, a youth leader of Progeny, an organization focused on reimagining the juvenile justice system in Kansas.
Progeny joined as a plaintiff because the ban hinders its ability to carry out its mission. Youth leaders indicated considerable resources have been used to assist those unjustly placed on the list.
Members could face consequences for even associating with one another.
Another plaintiff, a 45-year-old Black man, has been on the list since 1997 when he was 22. He said he has been continuously listed as active on the gang list since then because he gathers with friends who are also on the list.
“Having an unverified and inaccessible gang list speaks volumes about the racial profiling, targeting and harassment of Black and brown people in our community,” said Kristen Powell and NyKia Gatson, Progeny youth leaders. “If we continue to refuse to address lists such as the gang list, then we are refusing to address the legalized racism in our own community.”